The Italian humanist Ciriaco de’ Pizzicolli lived from 1391 to 1452. He is more commonly known as Cyriac of Ancona. While most humanists of his era were content to labor at their desks, he was unusual in that he sought to observe ancient monuments and inscriptions in person. He was, in fact, one of the very first to undertake a systematic survey of the surviving monuments of Greek antiquity in the Eastern Mediterranean; his work is of great value to the modern antiquarian, since many of the inscriptions and temples he sketched now no longer exist, ravaged by the cruelties of time and man.
Ironically (or perhaps appropriately), his works themselves survive only in fragmentary form. His multi-volume Commentaries were destroyed in a fire in the sixteenth century, having never found their way to print. But we do possess some extracts from his travel diaries, and these are better than nothing. They are strangely fascinating travel records, filled with philosophical asides on the transitory nature of glory and the enduring nature of virtue. One passage I read recently drives home the that even when a civilization’s former glory has departed, some residue of that glory always remains. It may not be readily apparent. But it is still there.
In the diary excerpt below, Cyriac describes his impressions when visiting the ruins of Sparta in 1447. He first begins with a sweeping panorama of disturbing decay:
[E]ven though one must grieve to behold those noble, ancient, distinguished and richly adorned cities, now in our time in a state of utter collapse or demolition almost everywhere throughout the region, one must endure with an [even] heavier heart, in my opinion, the pitiable ruin of the human race; because the fact that the world’s outstanding towns, marvelous temples sacred to the gods, beautiful statues and other extraordinary trappings of human power and skill have fallen from their pristine grandeur seems not so serious as the fact that, throughout almost all the regions of the world, that pristine human virtue and renowned integrity of spirit has fallen into an [even] worse condition; and where they had once flourished most, they had more and more departed.
For that noble-spirited, renowned race of Spartans, once the memorable triumph of every kind of military valor, not only in Greece, but in Europe and throughout the whole world, [but] nowadays a people feebly and basely untrue to their breeding, seem to have fallen completely from that famous pristine moral integrity of the Laconian, Lacedaemonian way of life…[I say this] because, in these our days, those who dwell in the Laconian land, on the Spartan foothill of Mount Taygetus, in the town of Mistra (which has discarded its ancient name), men who practice a poor sort of agriculture or commerce or ignoble trades and every kind of worthless superstitious rite, are ruled by barbarians or by foreigners.
For my part, however, I shall by no means pass over the following single exception, proving that, although the Lacedaemonians’ much talked-of political excellence, military training, and the splendid contests of men and well-born women in the gymnasia has been abandoned and have fallen into disuse through neglect over a long period of time, still, the nature of the place seems not totally to have waned, since it gives birth to human beings who are naturally honorable, able and suited to virtue.
As evidence of this residual glory of ancient Sparta, Cyriac describes the physical prowess of an impressive local man:
For today, while we were traveling from the village of Arcasa to Spartan Mistra, we saw among our companions a certain Spartan youth, tall of stature and quite handsome, George, called by the sobriquet Chirodontas, that is, “Boar’s Teeth,” because (they say) that once while hunting in the forest, encountering a fierce boar, he leaped onto its back, and pressing it down by sheer force, killed the prostrate beast; and they say that once he caught and held two men together under his arms and carried them several paces.
In my case also, instead of reassuring me verbally, and as a physical statement of his honesty, he caught me up with his hands on the bank of a certain small river, held me under his arm, and deposited me safely on the farther bank of the stream. And at the next village, we saw that, brandishing an iron rod that was three fingers thick, he had split it into separate parts. [Trans. by E.W. Bodnar]
So while it was true that the monuments and architecture of old Sparta had decayed and was at present in ruins, Cyriac could see that some imprint of this departed glory still remained on the people and the place. And this is why we should never believe that our efforts in this mortal life are to no avail. No effort is ever wasted; for even if the physical monuments of human greatness eventually crumble into dust, some vestige of this spirit will live on forever. The residual glory is there, and always remains.
Experience the excitement and drama of Rome’s first great historian in my new translation of Sallust: